NASA’s MCAT Facility – opening 2015!

MCAT, Ascension Is

Meter Class Autonomous Telescope Site, Ascension Island

NASA will break ground for their newest observatory facility this year on Ascension Island. The telescope at the center of the project, the Meter Class Autonomous Telescope or MCAT, will be used to characterize the space debris environment as its primary mission. Its chosen location on Ascension Island will allow NASA to see a portion of the sky that is difficult or impossible to view from other sites in the world. For additional background information on this optical telescope and why Ascension Island was the chosen site, see Principal Investigator (PI) Dr. Sue Lederer’s abstract on the topic.
The MCAT team spans the globe, but many key players reside within ARES. Dr. Sue Lederer (PI) and Lisa Pace (PM) are working closely with critical JETS contractors Drs. Heather Cowardin, Brent Buckalew and James Frith to bring this project to fruition. The concept was originally conceived by Orbital Debris Program Manager, Gene Stansbery.
Ascension Island is a volcanic island in the South Atlantic Ocean about halfway between Africa and Brazil. The island is only 34 square miles in area and is home to United States and British Air Force bases. The island is a British overseas territory rich in protected green sea turtles and a variety of birds with only about 700 (human) inhabitants (mostly military).
The climate is tropical and beaches beautiful, but it’s not much of a tourist destination given its remoteness and the need for a government sponsor or entry permit before traveling. Just one hotel exists on the island and everyone knows each other’s name. Locking doors isn’t necessary; in fact, most vehicles are left with the key in the ignition!
The island’s infrastructure is surprisingly great. Good food and hospitality are similar to a friendly small town in the U.S. The one major distinction is technology. Cell phones serve as cameras or a clock, but are useless for making phone calls. Land-line phones with cords are the best option in the rooms on base (the kind with those old fashioned rotary dials). Calls from the U.S. to the island can be made by just dialing the 321 area code first (Orlando, Florida) as their parent base is Patrick Air Force Base. Despite this, an existing multi-million dollar facility tasking a suite of radars for various military operations exists on the base in a very secure location with excellent maintenance and operations support. MCAT’s control room will reside in this state-of-the-art facility while the new MCAT observatory facility will be constructed just outside of it.
The MCAT facility will not only provide much needed optical data to the orbital debris community, but will offer a unique travel destination for ARES Scientists and Engineers fortunate enough to be involved in the project.
Ground-breaking is slated for September 2014!

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